The Ballad of P.J. Fleck

By Jack Roberts

Ever heard the term “Row the Boat”? If you spend a fair amount of time and interest in the realm of sports, you may have heard this term used frequently. Current Minnesota head football coach P.J. Fleck coined this term himself to describe how he has lifted himself to where he is today.

Entering high school, Fleck joined a Kaneland High School football team that had never once, in program history, made it to the state playoffs.

Fleck grabbed a paddle, and rowed.

In his Junior and Senior years, not only did Fleck lead his team to the playoffs, he led them to back to back 14–0 seasons, both with state championships.

Fleck’s success in high school, however, did not peak the interest of many college coaches. In fact, only one Division 1 school in the country gave him an full scholarship: Northern Illinois. Going into his freshman year, Fleck entered a program that had only won two of eleven games the season prior in 1998.

Fleck continued to row.

Graduating in 2003, Northern Illinois went 10–2 on the season beating 21 ranked Alabama and 15 ranked Maryland.

Fleck has the vision to enter a losing program, and leave it a winning one.

P.J. Fleck would later go on to assistant coach for several different college and NFL teams, but at the age of 32 would eventually earn his way as head coach of Western Michigan, making him the youngest coach in FBS history. In his first year at Western Michigan, Fleck’s team went an abysmal 1–11.


Skip ahead three years to the 2016 season where we find an undefeated Western Michigan and a MAC Conference championship.

Fleck took a struggling high school football team to the playoffs, two 14–0 seasons, as well as two state championships.

He went to Northern Illinois, a team that went 2–9 the year prior of his arrival and left it with a 10–2 season.

As a coach, Fleck entered a program and went 1–11 is first season as head coach but left undefeated and conference champions.

But how?

By now, you understand what “Row the Boat” means. You understand why it has inspired both Fleck as well as thousands of people across America. When things got hard for Fleck, when nothing was going his way, he grabbed a paddle and began to row.

The same goes for everyone. Keep rowing.


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